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Engaging Indonesia in a Multipolar World

15 Sep 2016
By John Anderson AO
John_Anderson. Photo Credit: Melissa Conley Tyler AIIA

The recent Indonesia-Australia Dialogue, supported by the Australian Institute of International Affairs, was remarkable for the range of topics covered and the candour and civility that marked the exchanges. The knowledge and understanding of Indonesia possessed by the Australians present was impressive, as was the high quality and graciously delivered commentary from the Indonesian delegation.

The world is now a very rapidly changing place and it is becoming even more important that the ties between the Indonesia and Australia are strengthened.

The dispute over the South China Sea and China’s rejection of The Hague ruling poses very real and serious questions for our region.

Indonesia, for very good reason, sees itself as a major foundational driver for ASEAN. Like Australia, Indonesia is still thinking through what the apparent rejection of the Law of the Sea might mean for ASEAN. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it may have global, not merely regional, significance as an issue.

The reality that confronts us is that broader global changes are afoot in the way that the world interacts. The supportive underlying US-led unipolar global security and economic architecture is weakening. The broad construct we have known since the collapse of the Berlin Wall looks as though it is fading. The global implications are uncertain but potentially massive.

Some believe—I am one of them—that we may see the re-emergence of a multipolar world in which several major clusters, say, the US and Western Europe, Russia, India, Africa, China, and South America, vie for position and even ascendancy. The implications for security, trade and general harmony may be immense. Furthermore, it is not easy to predict how all of this might unfold, or where Indonesia or Australia may fit in this multipolar world.

For me, the 2004 tsunami was a great personal catalyst for my commitment to the relationship between Australia and Indonesia.

I was acting prime minister when the full account of the disaster became apparent in early January of that year. John Howard was on holidays but he broke off so that we could have a lengthy phone conversation about the unfolding disaster and we recognised that its magnitude was such that it required a truly serious response from Australia, Indonesia’s closest neighbour.

I was particularly keen at the time to smooth the way for Australian volunteers who wanted to help in Indonesia and it was in the wake of the relationships I established through that process that led to me visiting on quite a regular basis.

I’ve since given speeches at Indonesian university campuses and at graduation ceremonies. My wife and I have visited primary schools and she has sung the English alphabet to an Indonesian class. I’ve been to many places—Bandung, Sumatra, Yogyakarta, Jakarta—and have had the chance to interact with many Indonesian people at many places on many levels.

It is all too easy to point to the differences between the two countries, yet the things we have in common are quite striking. Beyond living in the same part of the world, we are both young democracies, with relatively young populations, and both nations should be able to view their futures positively.

We can reasonably hope that our best days are in front of us.

We are both resource-based economies and trading nations. We both had serious debt-to-GDP problems in the mid-1990s at the time of the Asian Financial Crisis. We both witnessed impressive budget repair performances. Indonesia’s performance on reducing its debt ratio from 90 per cent to around 25 per cent has been particularly impressive.

I would also like to personally salute Indonesia for the way in which it continues to deepen its commitment to democracy. This is a sign of strength in a world where so many are moving in the opposite direction. However, from time to time we suffer disruptions in our relationship, as close neighbours sometimes do. Misunderstandings arise. Indonesian media and Australian media will sometimes exacerbate these problems.

The need to minimise these periodical differences and to increase the understanding and commitment between Indonesia and Australia is in my view very real. The two countries have everything to lose by magnifying the differences and everything to gain by building understanding and friendship.

Throughout the Indonesia-Australia Dialogue great emphasis was placed on the importance of interaction between young people from Indonesia and Australia through education and tourism. Further to that, I suggest that in the face of the great challenges facing the region and the world, we would do well to evaluate our future individual and joint policy responses through the prism of securing the interests of the young people of the two countries.

We need to be asking seriously what sort of world our decisions will be creating for our children and grandchildren.

The Hon John Anderson AO was deputy prime minister of Australia from 1999-2005 and a member of parliament for The Nationals between 1989-2007. He was a leading member of the Australian delegation at the third Australia-Indonesia Dialogue hosted by the Australian Institute of International Affairs and the Australia Indonesia Centre on 28-30 August in Yogyakarta supported by the Australian and Indonesian governments. This article is drawn from his address. It is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.